The heart-wrenching testimony of Christine Blasey Ford on Thursday prompted a visceral reaction that played out both on television and online.
People shared their own stories of sexual assault on social media, while some called in to C-SPAN to do the same. And while it was clear that Ford’s story empowered some survivors to share, other victims felt re-traumatized.
“This brings back so much pain,” said Brenda, a 76-year-old caller from Missouri who told C-SPAN she was sexually molested in the second grade. “Thought I was over it, but it’s not. You will never forget it. You get confused and you don’t understand it but you never forget what happened to you.”
“It’s just breaking my heart,” she said, her voice thick with tears.
Others, like Ann Scorsone of New York, said they felt encouraged and empowered by hearing Ford share her account. On Thursday, Scorsone shared for the first time that she’d been raped. Her mother didn’t even know.
“It’s my truth,” she said. “I don’t have to feel ashamed by any of this. If Dr. Ford has the courage to do it, so should I. It’s my herstory.”
Ford said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the 1980s while they were both in high school. Kavanaugh, who also testified Thursday, denies the accusation.
Experts CNN interviewed said the varied reactions to Ford’s testimony weren’t unusual for survivors of sexual violence, and neither was their widespread reflection and sharing.
“There’s a variety of responses,” said Joyce Marter, a licensed psychotherapist with Refresh Mental Health. Some survivors might be triggered by testimonies like Ford’s and experience a rush of emotions from their initial trauma, which could have been similar, she said.
“It also can be empowering,” Marter continued, “and validating that other people have been through this, that survivors are not alone and that there’s some normalization and validation in taking away the secrecy.”
Scorsone went on Twitter during Ford’s testimony and publicly shared for the first time her story of being sexually assaulted. She said she was sexually assaulted almost 20 years ago while she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand.
Being in the Peace Corps was her dream, she said, so she stayed and tried to cope with what happened to her.
“My rape wasn’t something I could leave in a suitcase at an airport,” she wrote on Twitter. “It’s something that lives with me every day.”
When asked why she decided to share her story now, the 40-year-old said Ford had inspired her.
“Dr. Ford is so brave,” Scorsone said. “She took on the establishment, and I feel empowered to say enough is enough.”
Reactions depend on victim’s trauma and support
Another therapist, Aida Manduley, also told CNN via email on Thursday that different survivors might have a wide range of reactions to high-profile accounts of sexual assault, like Ford’s testimony.
Manduley, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said their clients who are survivors of sexual assault might be “incensed and driven to action, heartened by the courage of those coming forward, extremely tired, overwhelmed and frightened.”
“A huge reason reactions vary so widely among survivors is because trauma itself interacts with our biologies, histories and social contexts to create a variety of reactions,” Manduley said. “Also, not all survivors of violence are at the same stage of healing or even processing what happened to them.”
Survivors who are in “an earlier stage” of healing might feel “completely destabilized” by hearing victims’ testimonies, Manduley explained, “while someone who’s been building resources and coping skills may have a stronger foundation from which to listen to these testimonies.”
Hailey Strzalka is familiar with that feeling.
She told CNN the three-year anniversary of her sexual assault is coming up next month, and posts about Kavanaugh online have served as constant triggers.
“It’s on the news, on social media, in shows, it’s everywhere and I’m constantly being reminded that some people still don’t believe me,” Strzalka posted on Twitter. “Not being able to escape the constant triggers is debilitating and I’m so tired.”
The Illinois resident watched Ford testify and followed along with all the coverage on social media throughout the day.
“When Dr. Ford spoke of the laughter being her most prominent memory, I felt that deeply,” Strzalka told CNN. “What I remember most from my assault was the music playing and hearing him laugh at me as he threw me down a hall once he was done with me.”
Confronting trauma in the age of #MeToo
Marter agreed that survivors’ reactions depend on “many different variables,” including whether they’ve been victims of other traumas, their support network, their psychological coping skills and their resiliency.
Marter said its “absolutely” common for survivors and others to reflect on their own traumas or experiences in the wake of a high-profile reckoning like Ford’s testimony or the #MeToo movement. Estimates by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, known as RAINN, appear to support that.
RAINN operates a 24/7 hotline for survivors of sexual violence. According to RAINN spokeswoman Sara McGovern, call volume to the hotline was up 201%, compared to a typical day.
Initial estimates on Thursday indicated the hotline saw a 147% increase in call volume, but RAINN updated that figure on Friday.
“We often see an uptick when sexual assault is in the news,” McGovern said via email. “Since Dr. Ford has come forward with her allegations, we have seen a 45.6% uptick compared to the same time period in 2017.”
The DC Rape Crisis Center has also seen “a significant spike in hotline calls as a result of the Kavanaugh hearings,” its executive director, Indira M. Henard, told CNN Friday.
The volume of calls — which she said has been up about 15% since #MeToo began trending last year — is not just from survivors of sexual violence. Some are friends and family of survivors, and some may never have been assaulted, but are “impacted by the heaviness of what is going on.” It’s not necessary to have experienced sexual violence firsthand to be traumatized by detailed accounts like the ones now in the media, she added.
“The world is watching. Young girls, women are watching to see if their pain, if their experiences, will be taken seriously,” Henard said. “This is such a pivotal moment in our country, and it’s so much bigger than just the Supreme Court nomination.”
Since the advent of the #MeToo movement, many victims have had to cope with a near-constant barrage of news reports about abusers and their victims. And that, said Marter, can be overwhelming.
“It’s happening everywhere and all the time,” she said. “It’s kind of depressing.”
Strzalka said she has made headway in her healing process, but felt the Kavanaugh hearing and the testimonies she heard made her progress “evaporate.”
“This has brought back a lot of bad memories for me,” she said, “and I’m thankful for my support system as I work on continuing to be a strong woman with valid experiences.”
Manduley and Marter both offered suggestions for dealing with resurfacing trauma. Among them: Unplug.
“Some people feel like their duty is to dive in and consume all of the media coverage,” said Manduley, particularly if they’re worried their own assaults would be discredited if they don’t treat each case the way everyone expects them to. But “overloading our systems is rarely a good idea,” they said.
“What I suggest is that people figure out what their goals are in engaging with this material and where they can find some rest, restoration and safety,” Manduley said.
Marter encouraged survivors to reframe their perception of the news reports, and recognize the massive, public reckoning visible on social media, cable television and the front pages of newspapers means a longstanding issue is finally being addressed.
“It’s like an infection that’s being seen, and treated, and that’s part of healing and part of change.”